Inside the mind of a man

Science tells us that men’s brains are different from women’s – but that doesn’t mean we should not

In the heady, revolutionary days of student sit-ins in Paris in the 1960s and 1970s, the message about gender was that all differences were socially constructed. The idea was that, with re-education and so­cial change, these differences would melt away, opening the way for equality between the sexes. "Sociobiologists" were the enemy because they claimed that gender had something to do with genes and evolution. The battle lines between nature and nurture were drawn, with those on the political left firmly allied with nurture and those arguing for nature typecast as being on the extreme right.

One might hope that - 40 years on - such black-and-white thinking would have been replaced by a more nuanced understanding. There has been progress. Today's students of gender do not feel that their former champions (such as Germaine Greer, who wrote in 1991 about "centuries of conditioning of the female") have a monopoly on the truth, and they show a new willingness to learn what scientists have to share. Those scientists who acknowledge the partial role of biology in the creation of gender differences are not banished: it is no longer about nature v nurture.

My own research into gender differences stems from my interest in the neurodevelopmental condition of autism. "Neurodevelopmental" is a fancy word that means every person's brain - from foetal life, through childhood and adolescence - develops differently. In the case of autism, this is partly for genetic reasons, as autism runs in families and has been associated with over 200 different genetic variations. Many more boys than girls develop autism (or the related condition of Asperger's syndrome), so I wanted to understand why the biology of maleness predisposes a child's brain to end up in the condition's extreme state.

What we know is that girls, on average, make more eye contact than boys from at least 12 months of age and that, on average, language develops faster in girls than in boys, measured at 18 and 24 months of age. The question is: "Why?" Given that reduced eye contact and delayed language are two of the signs of classic autism in preschoolers, it seems necessary to consider whether autism is an extreme form of the typical male pattern of development.

New genes

When scientists conduct studies on the nature of the male and the female brain, they put people into two groups, based on their sex. I prefer the word "sex" to the word "gender" because your sex refers to your chromosomal status: whether you have one or two X chromosomes. This starting point, at the moment the egg is fertilised, sets in motion a cascade of consequences for the physical development of males and females because, in place of their second X chromosome, males alone have a Y chromosome. Situated on the Y chromosome is a cri­tical gene called SRY (shorthand for the "sex-determining region Y") that tells the embryo to either grow a pair of testes (and thus become male) or not (and thus remain female).

Once the testes start to function, they pump out the hormone testosterone. There is a surge in the production of this hormone by the foetus from the 12th to the 20th week of pregnancy. The baby's testes are not the only source of testosterone: it is also made from the adrenal glands, which explains why females also have some testosterone but males produce at least twice as much.

Animal experiments have shown that how much testosterone a foetus produces influences the "masculinisation" of the brain and (post-natal) behaviour. This is also true of human beings. We measured hormone levels in the amniotic fluid (the liquid in the womb) during pregnancy and found that the higher the baby's testosterone is pre-natally, the less eye contact the child makes at 12 months of age and the smaller the child's vocabulary is at 18 and 24 months. The puzzle of why, on average, girls talk earlier than boys and spend more time looking at people's faces is solved by this uni­que experiment. As a psychologist, however, I acknowledge that the influence of testosterone is only part of the explanation, as the more a child looks at faces or talks, the more such behaviour will be reinforced by the reactions of others - nature and nurture interacting.
Hormones are not the only biological factors that contribute to observed sex differences in the brain and behaviour, because these are under genetic influence, too, and there are many genes that are "sex-linked". Finding hormonal or genetic effects also says nothing about where in the brain these effects take place.

We know that the male brain is on average 8 per cent bigger than the female brain, even at as early as two weeks of age. But probably more important is that girls' brains tend to develop faster than boys'. We know from studies using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) that girls peak about four years earlier than boys in terms of when they reach their maximum total brain volume and about two years earlier in terms of when they reach their maximum amount of "grey matter" in the brain. This important discovery tells us that, on average, girls mature at very different rates from boys.

Using MRI, you can find sex differences in other regions of the brain, too - a notable one being the amygdala (the "emotion centre"), in both size and activity. In addition, one of the language areas (the planum temporale) is, on average, larger in the female brain. Such findings say nothing about whether the differences come from biology or learning but, from everything we now know, it is a safe bet to say that they come from both.

Law of averages

Throughout this article I have used the phrase "on average", because sex differences cannot be extrapolated to individuals but emerge only when statistical averages of two groups (males and females) are compared. This small caveat is hugely important if stereotyping generalisations are to be avoided, as individuals may be typical or atypical of their sex.

It is equally important not to confuse science with politics. The science of sex differences was once feared, as if even asking the questions was part of a conspiracy to repress women and perpetuate inequalities. Like most conspiracy theories, this one is mythical. The scientists I have met who conduct these experiments are of every political hue.

Speaking for myself, I strongly oppose any form of discrimination or inequality, whether based on sex, ethnicity, social class or disability. Knowing a person's sex tells you nothing about his or her abilities, aptitudes or interests and making any assumption about that person on the basis of their sex would be sexist, scientifically inaccurate and morally wrong. But science helps us to uncover the mysteries of nature, including the nature of sex differences. Handled sensitively, it can teach us a lot about why we turn out the way we do.

Simon Baron-Cohen is professor of developmental psychopathology at the University of Cambridge. His book "Zero Degrees of Empathy" will be published in April by Allen Lane (£20)

He said, she said

Men are from Mars, women are from Venus - and bad at maths, according to the former president of Harvard Lawrence Summers. When asked at a conference in 2005 why more women were not engaged in high-level research in mathematics, science and engineering, Summers argued that it could be down to "issues of intrinsic aptitude". Such a statement reveals the curious evolution of thought on gender and biology through the 20th century.

When psychologists such as John Money first separated the notion of biological sex from that of gender in the mid-1950s and early 1960s, a consensus quickly emerged that gender was a social construct. Differences in the abilities of men and women were the product of social pressures and expectations, rather than innate, biological differences.

In recent years, however, gender has been pulled back again from the social to the scientific. Biological determinists contend that, far from being a cultural construct, the distinctions between the minds of men and women are innate.

This discourse, however, does not go unchallenged. Writers such as Cordelia Fine in her book Delusions of Gender contend that the evidence put forward is flawed. As for Summers, his comments led to a vote of no confidence and he eventually resigned. Perhaps men aren't as clever as they think.

Duncan Robinson

This article first appeared in the 03 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The siege of Gaza

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood